Alto Saxophonist and Composer Matana Roberts, originally from Chicago, IL, has been on the NYC for quite some time now, making a name for herself with a very distinct sound not only on her instrument, but in the very strong projects she’s done over the years. She topped the Rising Star Alto Saxophone section in this years Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll and has been making serious strides developing her original style and concept. Here’s a question and answer between her and I
Were you born in Chicago?
yes, born and mostly raised on the Southside of Chicago, though I also spent some time as a kid in upstate NY and North Carolina. My dad was a political scientist from Chicago's westside, and we moved around for a small period as he finished his academic studies. My parents were still in college when they had me. My mother was from Chicago also. When my parents divorced my mother brought us back to Chicago for good.
What got you into music?
My extended family has a deep appreciation for the arts, and were very resourceful in finding things, so I was exposed to concerts across many genres, plays,opera, art exhibitions... at a very,very young age. I was the baby in the baby carrier at concerts and the like etc... My mother grew up in a working middle class african american catholic family, and my uncles (her brothers) sang in choirs and played in bands as hobbies. My grandmother and great grandmother were devoted to the Chicago Lyric Opera--saving up for years to finally get box seats and my mother's father wrote poetry as a hobby. My mother played cello and guitar, but again as a hobby. My dad grew up pretty poor and did not have access to hobbies, but grew up in a family that appreciated music, and he had a teacher that took young men aside in high school and tried to teach them about the thrill of books, chess, and records. So all that combined between my parents background and extended family really had an influence on me.
My parents were really into improvised music by the time I showed up. A lot of that music supported the radical politics of that time. We didn't always have food at home, surviving on what was really grad college student budgets, but there always managed to be a lot of records/books in the house. I remember hearing a lot of Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sonny Murray, late Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, combined with great records by bands like Earth Wind and Fire, The Gap Band, folks like Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Donna Summer. Classical music too: mostly Beethoven and then a lot of comedy records: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Red Foxx, Moms Mabley etc...
I also went to public schools at a time when there was still a lot of money for the arts in the American school system... So I got lots of free music lessons very at a very young age as well and a lot of encouragement to work hard at it. In some sense it was where I most excelled. I was pretty bad at everything else in school (except reading. I loved/love reading.)
You were a orchestral clarinetist and made the switch to play the saxophone, specifically the alto saxophone. What made you make the switch?
A combination of a lot of things had me make a switch..... I really loved the clarinet... Enough time has passed now, that I'm okay to now finally just say I dealt with some lecherous gender abuse from one of my clarinet teachers and that is what mainly turned me off from the instrument for a time..... I started on alto saxophone part time in high school because of another teacher's encouragement. At the time I had no interest in the saxophone because I could not afford one. It reminded me too much of the music my parents liked, and no one wants to be into what they're parents are into… you know? But this teacher saw something I guess, and he gave me an old Yamaha student model saxophone to work with, and then eventually in college i got a hold of a professional level alto that took forever to pay for, but it was worth it....
I also had another teacher in high school, who made it a point to get me to come to school early a few days a week, to teach me harmony lessons, because I guess he also saw something.... I really cherish those early morning school memories.... It would be many years before i switched to saxophone full on, but those old lessons helped to lay a foundation.
By the time I got to college I was playing clubs at night and doing orchestral studies during the day. My clarinet teacher at the time found out and said I had to choose.... said that I was ruining my chance at an orchestral position by playing saxophone, because it would destroy my "orchestral sound" on the clarinet. By this time I had also gotten really tired of the classical music cannon, as I felt I could not find a place within that cannon to really express myself
for some reason whenever I played alto saxophone in front of people I felt really comfortable: it felt like an extension of my own voice. I never felt that way on clarinet. I was always a nervous wreck on clarinet when playing for or with people.
When I started getting really deep into improvised and jazz musics I was going to switch to tenor as that just felt like a natural progression and then I heard Cannonball Adderly's solo on Waltz for Debby, on that recording with Bill Evans ( "Know What I Mean"). His sound was so fat and rich from top to bottom, a sound that reminded me of the tenor, and I just never looked back after that.
Who were some early your early influences in music?
Depends on how early? I guess when i started getting serious about improvised music: Saxophonists Fred Anderson, Von Freeman, David Boykins, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Lin Halliday, John Zorn, Anthony Braxton ,Roscoe Mitchell, and Steve Lacy. Flautist Nicole Mitchell. Bassist Josh Abrams. Drummers Chad Taylor, Avreeayl Ra, Doug Mitchell. Cornetists Rob Mazurek and Bill Dixon. Guitarists Jeff Parker, Derek Bailey. Lots of singers like Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Jeanne Lee.
Non jazz/ improvised stuff: I dug a hole deep into some great hip hop and 90's neo soul... De La Soul, Da Brat, J Dilla/Slum Village, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and all day long, Boyz II Men, Eve, the Roots--anybody coming out of philly/anybody associated with Native Tongues at that time really.... Janet Jackson, Rah Digga, later Prince, Xscape, biggie, tupac, Aaliyah, Bahamadia, En vogue, Jodeci, later Luther Vandross (bc of my mama really, she loved her some Luther:))
Meshell Ndegeocello, Erykah bad, and Lauryn hill, changed my whole being really, they seemed fearless in music, and all reminded me of possibility....
and then started checking out more Morton Feldman, John Cage, Velvet Underground and spiraled out wildly from there.....got into hardcore music and then there was the mind spinning discovery of Fluxus and the musicians involved in that...
So that sort of a very condensed “early on”….. its definitely gone in many different directions since then. I listen to a lot of different things these days that are really not related in any discernible way with the exception that it is "music", and music is a wonder...being able to hear is such a privilege.
In Life? And why?
early influences in life? I don't know.... I've always had a certain love for folks of any gender who see life in a way that flips the current view.... What I value most in life is what I can do, what i can learn, how i can help, not what i can own or hold over other people..... So that's a pretty wide umbrella that covers a lot of different people from many walks of life...I read a lot. maybe too much. but i love language...right now have been deeply inspired by the writings of Roxane Gay and Jane Jacobs.... I also get a lot of inspiration from the natural world....Water on earth and beyond, is a major component of inspiration/experimentation and constant obsessive exploration...
Can you talk about Coin Coin and what how it began? Also, is it going to be a 12 album project?
Yes its going to be 12.
here's a quote from another interview (http://thequietus.com/articles/18937-matana-roberts-interview) i did that I feel sums it up pretty well:
"I have a really big interest in the spirit world: spooks and the things we can't necessarily see but feel. An exploration of ghosts and things of that nature. There was a period of my childhood where I tried to contact people on that plane and I stopped doing that as a teenager because I heard it can induce states of psychosis if you don't have a proper guide. So I left that and I realized that music is my medium, my guide. So the COIN COIN work has a lot to do with stories and people from my ancestral history in the sense that I've always wanted to have some kind of contact with [them]. Also I'm a history geek and I love American history. It's so bizarre and so problematic and I love the many conundrums that it represents. You can go down so many black holes and this project has got me in a certain hole as well! It's a way of interpreting that history in a way that makes sense to me."
How and what do you practice now? Does it differ from how you practiced 10 years ago? How so?
my practice now is deeply multi faceted depending on what Im working on.... I do so many different things in the name of sound with my alto as the root... but I guess saxophone wise, its all about breath, sound, pace and patience. Long tones never die etc.... Im also more interested in the science behind my body's connection to the alto and so I explore that a lot in my practice these days as well, kind of tracking things i never tracked before (like heart rate, brainwaves stuff etc).... but really just the tried and true basics, are the same as they have always been for me. There are still things I can't do on the alto that I would like to do, so it's a never ending saga of chasing that train... i feel grateful for its place in my life. Keeps things humble:).
It differs maybe in that I'm no longer in a competitive state about playing my horn.... I used to be, and though I think it did help for a time, it started to tear at me. Works well for some though.
The saxophone is a tool that I have been graced with to make sense of life, not fight it or try to over control it so my focus has shifted, and I’m no longer practicing to try to prove something to someone, because its not about other people or even myself, its about ways of the universe and the cosmos, you know?
I often hear multi phonics/harmonics in your playing. Can you talk about that and how you’ve studied/practiced it?
I guess my ratted copy of Rascher's Top Tones for Saxophone probably would give that away....I just work on it...its a constant....and at this point I'm no longer sure what I'm after, I just enjoy it.
What are things you do to maintain your creativity and motivation in music lately?
I do a lot of physical explorative stuff: yoga, movement stuff.... and anything water related....mostly swimming right now. Yogic breathing and swim breathing does so many great things for my saxophone playing..... I'm also getting a lot out of learning how to really "see" in the natural world.... reading "water" is actually a thing that goes back many many centuries and I'm deeply fascinated and inspired by it...... It's all about patterns and very delicate systems that to me are very related to how i see or want to see sound....
In an interview, I heard you speak about sticking to your creative goals and ideas… Your creative and artistic voice. That’s something I think many of us are trying to get to and maintain. Can you talk about the importance of this as well as the effect it has had on your career?
Well I was raised in an environment where I never had to hold my head down really.... I was always taught to have a sense of self and to know that I don't have to ask permission for seeking my truths, and that I should always question those that feel otherwise. So I've just always tried to move with where the energy is taking me even if it's contrary, making large leaps, worrying about the smaller details later. Sometimes this has worked out well and sometimes this has led to utter disaster but I'm still alive to tell the tale so...
My career? Idk. I'm just grateful to have one.
I prob could of maybe made some things a bit easier on myself up to this point, but that's not where the energy was pulling me...
If you were stuck on a desert Island, what 5 albums would you take with you?
wow thats a tough. I chose 6, sorry.
Fred Anderson Quartet Volume 1
Eliane Radigue's Tryptych
Carla Bozulich's Evangelista
Jesu's 1st record( self titled)
Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa
A Tribe Call Quest's Low End Theory
Is there anyone that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?
wow soooooooooo many people..... I really admire the work of french bassist Joëlle Léandre..... I'd love to work on an extensive project with Me'shell Ndegeocello....we've done some small things but I'd really love to invest more time with her. She's a walking genius... Kyp Malone is someone I'd also love to work with as he is obsessed with sound in ways that make sense to me.... I'd love to play with Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, Mark Ribot, Jason Moran, Moor Mother, Susie Ibarra,Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Saul Williams, etc etc and etc..... and in general, I'd love to just be working with more elders....That's where the real wisdom is...
What’s your set up?
Right now? a late mark VI (almost VII) alto these days. I use a vintage hard rubber new york meyer 5, w/ vandoren classic blue box reeds( 3-3/12), and a francois louis ligature.